Japan’s Literary Treasures

A Poet for All Seasons: Yosano Akiko and Same-Sex Love


Poet Yosano Akiko’s painfully honest and moving account of her passionate crush on a classmate at her school for girls raises questions about how love and sexuality are viewed in different eras.

A Passionate Crush

Was Yosano Akiko queer? That was the question a poet friend, seemingly influenced by a website listing possibly queer poets, asked me a few months ago. For my friend, who told me she is queer herself (as in sexually fluid, able to love a man or a woman), the answer was of personal importance.

Readers who conflate the poems with the life have long indulged themselves by weaving stories about Akiko’s sexuality, but I set most of those aside long ago. Even where “evidence” was adduced it always proved to be more smoke than fire. My friend’s inquiry, though, was asked in all seriousness, and the personal urgency inspired me to look into the question more deeply. Among Akiko’s uncollected essays I found the intriguingly titled “Same-Sex Love: An Autobiographical Interlude” (“Dōsei no ai jiden no issetsu,” 1917). This painfully honest and moving account tells of Akiko’s passionate crush on a classmate at the Sakai School for Girls during her early adolescence. Here I will introduce it and then return to the question with which I began.

Akiko begins, as she often does in her essays of this time, by discussing the etymology of a word, in this case omesan. People were now choosing to write this term for an intimate relationship between two girls with the kanji for “male” and “female,” but she objects to this, insisting (on the authority of a contemporary girl student she knew) that it was an abbreviation of omedetai, “fortunate,” derived from the envy others felt for the couple’s happiness. “To write it with the kanji for ‘male’ and ‘female,’” she declares, “makes a word about something innocent into one that expresses something repulsive to even think of.” In other words, Akiko is insisting on the asexual purity of same-sex love between girls, and fighting the orthography which would suggest that such love had an erotic component.

The conflation of romantic friendship with sexual passion under the single heading of homosexual love arrived in Japan in the late nineteenth century, when the works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing were translated, and those who kept up with developments in modern thought, as Akiko did, were well aware of the theory that same-sex love was a sexual perversion. By objecting to writing ome with the kanji for male and female, she is putting her foot down and refusing to let the word mean a lesbian relationship. At the same time, she stakes out a territory for this purely spiritual same-sex love that is even more intense than that of erotic heterosexual love, and then, without any pause, enters into her own personal story:

“I am of the firm belief that love between adolescent girls is not a form of sexual perversion. I also know that this love between girls comes with feelings even more intense than those of love between men and women. I had a friend like that once. One usually hears that in such relationships the love is equal on both sides, but with us, it was eight parts on my side and but two on hers. It’s obvious now of course, but even then I fully realized that my love was completely irrational.

“My friend—let’s call her M—was the same age as me. She did not come from an old family but was the daughter of what was then called in Sakai a ‘house of means,’ which today would be called nouveau riche. My love for her continued passionately for three years, from the time I was fourteen to when I was sixteen.” (Note that in her essay she uses kazoe-doshi—the traditional means of counting age, in which a child is counted as 1 upon birth and gains another year of age every January 1—and says 15 to 17; in fact, Akiko was born in December, so she might have been even younger, that is, 13 to 15.)

Big-City Glamor

What attracted Akiko was M’s connection to Osaka, the closest large city to Akiko’s hometown of Sakai, and the site of many wistful dreams of freedom and beauty from Akiko’s childhood. M wore her hair in the Osaka style, and decorated it with lovely ribbons. This attracted Akiko’s attention and admiration, and made her wonder if M and Osaka people often met. And this speculation, she writes, “was the beginning of my love.”

It turned out that M was intimately acquainted with the big city and had many stories to tell about Osaka people and their doings. At first, Akiko wondered if she was merely relaying what she had heard, but then she realized that M “was reporting what she herself had seen,” and she became even more smitten, for Osaka was a city of tremendous glamor for Akiko.

She continues: “The girls who had grown up in the dim dark streets of old Sakai almost never got excited when they heard about the wonderful ways of city people. I looked forward to being near M in the ironing room [they were in the same sewing class] and started to think up excuses to go there when I knew she would be using it. I also liked that the things M made were always new kimono for herself using the finest silk.

“In those years, I never felt envy for others, but I would think of someone else’s happiness and good fortune as my own and use it as fodder for the fantasies I wove, so during the time I sat there silently sewing, the lovely striped and patterned kimono that M sewed gave me many dreams. I was so happy when we began to sit together at lunch in the school cafeteria. We also began to walk home from school together. If I happened to notice M as I walked to school in the morning my heart would beat so quickly. Then one day she suggested that we both wear our hair to school in shimada style, and I was in ecstasies. But then she told me that because our plan had leaked out to another one of her best friends, we would have to give it up, in order not to hurt the other friend’s feelings. Instead, she said, she would do her hair in shimada style one week and then I could do mine in shimada style the next, so only the two of us would know.

“But instead of doing as she said, I did my hair in shimada style on the same day as her. I did it on purpose, to make the other friend jealous. And then how miserable I was when M hated me for it!

“One day after school let out, I was waiting for M in the corridor at the bottom of the stairs so that we could walk home together, when another friend came and told me that M said she would be late so I should go home ahead. Hardly knowing what I was doing, I rushed up the stairs. In tears, I said to M, “You and your other friend can go home together later on!” Even now I think I have never felt as intensely jealous as I did then, even in my seventeen years of marriage.”

An Impossible Friendship

Many questions could be raised about Akiko’s feelings, their egocentricity, their possessiveness, and so on, but Akiko herself goes on to introduce the most interesting one: How could a girl like her, so intellectual, so ambitious, so well-read, waste her time on an impossible friendship with someone so much her inferior, for whom pretty ribbons and celebrity gossip were the stuff of life? Here is how she explains it:

“It may be hard to believe that the person I was then could have been satisfied with talking about what happened to be in style at the moment or gossiping about Osaka theater and actors. To explain I need to describe my complicated psychological condition at the time. On one hand, I well knew that the things I talked about as one of the best friends of the girl I’ve called M were trivial and insignificant. I had been a voracious reader of new books and old, with a tremendous hunger for knowledge, since I was eleven or twelve [12 or 13 in the original kazoe-doshi]. A passion for learning burned in me like fire. When I was at school, the one fear that obsessed me was that the moment my love for learning became known to M, we would have to part. For the sake of my love for M I accepted becoming a foolish young woman.

“Among passionate loves there must be those that are not as irrational as mine was. Mine resembled a man who pretends to be uncultured when enjoying himself with a geisha. And yet I loved her passionately, to a degree that surprises me even today.”

The woman who was capable of writing this painstaking and poignant account of her adolescent self is still often dismissed as someone who, after her first daring collection of poetry, became the embodiment of the good wife and wise mother. This essay puts paid to that, as do her many poems and essays about the ups and downs of her enduring marriage to Yosano Tekkan (Hiroshi), the love of her life.

A Paradox?

But to return to the question with which I began: Was Akiko queer, that is, did she ever experience passionate erotic love for a woman? On the evidence of this essay, I would say no. The reason is that at the essay’s beginning she explicitly states that by same-sex love between women she does not mean sexual love, that is, lesbianism, which she calls a perversion. But while insisting on this, she also states that nonsexual love can be stronger than the sexual love between a man and a woman. To our modern eyes, this is a paradox, and this paradox is, I think, the most important part of her essay.

Akiko grew up at a time when romantic friendship between women was commonplace and well documented in Japan, Europe, and America. In fact, it still exists, but has gotten lost among a dizzyingly varied taxonomy of sexualities, from the strict binary of male-female to the pansexual. Akiko herself, as if foreseeing the demise of gender as a binary concept, once wrote:

“Is not the distinction made between men and women up until now too superficial and based only on one part? There are men among us who in their facial features, their skin, the timbre of their voice, and even their disposition and feelings are like a woman. And conversely there are women who in all those things are like a man. That is to say, I think that there must be a significant number of men equipped to bear children and also of women who possess the talent to be a writer, a teacher, a farmer, or a philosopher. If we did the necessary theorization and experiments we might discover that distinguishing between men and women only on the basis of their roles in reproduction is a mistake.”

To call Akiko queer is to impose our ideas of love on her. Akiko lived during a period when the view of romantic friendship between women was changing from acceptance to rejection. In her 1981 classic Surpassing the Love of Men, Lillian Faderman wrote of how “the supposedly liberalized twentieth-century view of sex”  created its own rigidity. With the sex drive identified as the foremost instinct, “the enriching romantic friendship that was common in earlier eras is thought to be impossible.”

In our sex-obsessed age, it may be hard to imagine an asexual attachment that surpasses the love of men in its intensity, but Akiko’s essay is about that reality. Often Akiko seems wonderfully contemporary or at least modern, but in this area she is not.

Or is she? It may be that she has put her finger on something that is universal and unchanging, whether or not current mores name it. As always, Akiko honestly narrating her emotions teaches us about ours.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Two young Taishō-era women walk across Tokyo’s Benkei Bridge. From Shōjo Gahō, December 1913.)

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